Much credit typically goes to mayors like Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, who cleaned up vice districts, pushed out undesirables and clamped down on nuisance crimes. Once the infrastructure was functioning and crime reduced, the argument usually goes, the natural asset of a great city, the draw of its history, the life-affirming force of its romance, its prestige and its pull, could all be trusted to work their magic. The politicians just had to make it possible for New York to be New York.
But Riedel argues that it was actually the theater and restaurant owners — people sick of plying their struggling trade in an environment that was collapsing all around them — who did the real work on the ground that transformed the fortunes of New York. The offices of Gotham City chugged along; people could head home right after work. But you can’t run an entertainment or dinner business if the police are telling people to get off the streets by 6 p.m.
So, in Riedel’s telling, the late Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization went to work, back there in the mid-1970s. He harassed cops on the take to do their jobs and arrest the pimps and prostitutes; he organized all of the businesses in and around Times Square so that they had a collective voice; he found private cash to fill the potholes and empty the garbage cans that the city was leaving full; he waged war against corruption and vice. Retail-style.
With some well-chosen allies, he went about this mission block by block, nasty business by nasty business, sometimes resorting to unsavory, hardball tactics. This was controversial at the time — streetwalkers had rights — but Schoenfeld and his pals also were confronting a massive sex business with documented ties to the mafia — a sex business that dominated the very streets where kids now go to see “Aladdin.” Schoenfeld’s contribution was not least his figuring out that the one had to go before the other could arrive. Ergo, the circle of life.
This may be a popular argument these days about those in the arts and some urbanists: culture industries can help revive moribund cities or neighborhoods. The artists or creative types move in first and then others follow, drawn by the intriguing cultural experiences and economic opportunities.
The story above complicates the narrative a bit though. These theaters had been present for a while – they didn’t move in all the sudden in the mid 1970s. The theater industry also had resources in terms of social connections and money to use – poor artists they were not. The narrative told above may lend itself more to growth machine models of urban development rather than cultural ones. A collection of powerful business owners (probably with the aid of political leaders) were able to make things happen behind the scenes to clean up and revive Times Square.